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"Who's the other?" asked Hirschbeck.
Says Hirschbeck, "That was the moment I said, You know what? Enough's enough. What's the sense in living with this feeling?" Also, something in Hirschbeck had changed. "You hear all the horrible things in this world," he says. "In John's case, he didn't feel pain that we know of when he died—he died in our arms. Cursed? No. I'm blessed."
The next day Hirschbeck was standing behind second base with the Indians on the field. "Hey, Robbie, how you doing?" he said. He says now, "The floodgates were opened." They asked each other about their families and talked about little things—"just a regular conversation," says Hirschbeck. The next day Alomar met with the Hirschbeck family in the stadium tunnel before the game. "He gave Denise a big hug," says Hirschbeck. "It was like a making up with the whole family. And it was time to move on."
There was forgiveness and closure for both men and the beginning of a friendship. "I got to know him as a man," says Alomar, "and I could see that we were the same in a lot of ways—both quiet, both private. He's a great father, a great family man. Humble." The umpire, too, began to see another side of the player: When Michael Hirschbeck worked in the Indians' clubhouse as a batboy, he and Alomar developed a bond as Alomar showed him the ropes. "I love that kid," says Alomar. "I remember he always had a smile on his face." When Hirschbeck held his first golf tournament to raise money for ALD, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people all over baseball, but he was most taken aback when boxes of shoes, shirts, gloves and memorabilia arrived from Alomar. Roberto and Sandy's framed jerseys went for more money than anything else at Hirschbeck's charity auction.
"There's no bitterness, there's no anger," says Hirschbeck. "The best part of the closure is that Robbie and I, we have a friendship."
They do not talk regularly, they have not seen each other in years, but the two men reach out to each other at important moments.
Four years ago, Hirschbeck learned he had cancer. Soon after, his phone rang. It was Alomar. "Anything I can do to help?" he said. "I'm here for you." Last year Hirschbeck's cancer returned. Even as he went through chemotherapy, even when his back gave out, even when there was every reason for him to walk away, he stayed in the game. "My daughters told me not to go out like that," he says. He returned this spring for his 31st season, and while he's healthy again, he thinks that maybe this will be his last year and it will be time, finally, to walk away.
These last few years have not been easy for Alomar, either. In 2010 he was embroiled in a contentious divorce with his then wife, Maria Del Pilar, who alleged that he had exposed her to the AIDS virus. (Alomar denied that claim, and the two settled out of court.) That same year, when Alomar was up for the Hall of Fame for the first time, countless writers dredged up the spitting incident and turned to Hirschbeck for his thoughts on the player's candidacy. "Roberto Alomar is the greatest second baseman I've ever seen," Hirschbeck would tell each writer. "If that's the worst thing Robbie Alomar ever does in his life, he's led a very good life."
The weekend of the announcement in January, Alomar was in New York City, surrounded by friends who'd flown in to be with him. He was assumed to be a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, incredibly, he was eight votes short. The punishment had been delivered. His phone rang later the same day. It was Hirschbeck. "I'm sorry," he said. "If what happened that day entered into this decision at all ... I'm sorry. We'll get it next year." In 2011, Alomar was voted in with a whopping 90% of the vote. Again, his old friend was one of the first to call. "We made it," Hirschbeck said. "We made it."